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'Like a movie warp scene': Experiencing 500 kph on Japan's new maglev train

This monitor inside the maglev train shows the speed and distance the train has traveled. Reporters busily snapped photos when the counter hit 500 kilometers per hour. (Mainichi/Keisuke Umeda)
This photo shows the rounded nose of the improved L0-series train that reduces wind resistance, in Tsuru, Yamanashi Prefecture, on Oct. 19, 2020. (Mainichi/Keisuke Umeda)

JR Central on Oct. 19 unveiled its new maglev bullet train, whizzing reporters along an experimental track at speeds of up to 500 kilometers per hour, as work forges ahead on the Chuo Shinkansen Line that is set to link Tokyo and Nagoya in as little as 40 minutes.

    Mainichi reporter Keisuke Umeda was among those to experience the high-speed ride in a newly improved car on the Linear Chuo Shinkansen train. Below is an overview of the service and his experience.

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    The 42.8-kilometer-long experimental track runs between the Yamanashi Prefecture cities of Uenohara and Fuefuki in central Japan. JR Central hopes to start commercial maglev operations in 2027. And to that end it has run up a total of some 3.19 million kilometers -- about 80 times the Earth's circumference -- on the test track since its completion in 1997. It says the maglev technology was ready by 2017, but the firm is making improvements to enhance the comfort of the trains. It has been testing its latest train cars since August this year.

    This photo provided by JR Central shows the interior of an improved maglev train car, with USB outlets in the armrests, and space for luggage at one's feet.

    The train reporters boarded on Oct. 19 was an L0-series model. Just like the Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train line's 0-series, the "0" indicates that it is a first-generation train. The latest model has a rounder nose, lowering wind resistance by around 13% compared to previous models, thereby saving power and reducing noise. It still has four seats in each row (two on either side of the aisle) but acoustic panels have been fitted to the ceiling to reduce noise inside the cars.

    A seven-carriage train ran the demonstration run. The front and middle cars were the improved types, while the remaining ones were previous L0-series versions. I traveled in the middle car. The seats, which are said to be able to disperse body pressure, were 22 millimeters wider and 40 millimeters deeper than earlier models, and felt comfortable. In addition to overhead racks, there is also storage space at the foot of the seats large enough for a small case. All seats have USB ports, erasing worries of your mobile phone running out of power.

    The train started to move, gathering speed as a monitor showed it hitting 300 kph, then 350, then 400. In a little under three minutes, it reached 500 kilometers per hour -- it's top commercial operating speed. I tried placing a plastic drink bottle in the drink holder to check the vibrations inside the carriage. It moved a little, but basically remained stable.

    About 80% of the experimental track runs through tunnels, so the reporters' eyes were glued to a monitor displaying the speed and the view from the train's lead car as it zoomed through the tunnel. It was like a warp scene in a movie.

    As we neared the end of the track and slowed down to about 150 kph, the vibrations suddenly hit me. This was the moment the train switched from its floating run, suspended about 10 centimeters in the air by powerful magnets, to running on wheels. Acceleration and deceleration felt closer to that of an aircraft than a regular bullet train.

    The inside of a car on the maglev train, which travels through tunnels for a large portion of its route, is lit up brightly with LED lights, on Oct. 19, 2020. (Mainichi/Keisuke Umeda)

    Altogether, it took only eight minutes to travel the 42.8 kilometers of the experimental track. Hiroshi Oshima of the Yamanashi maglev testing center confidently told reporters after the test run, "We think this is the best car we can come up with now."

    It remains unclear, however, whether commercial operations will be able to commence in 2027, as JR Central plans, as the local government in Shizuoka Prefecture, through which the planned route extends, has not given its permission for construction to go ahead. The prefecture says the work may reduce the level of water in the local Oi River, and so far, there has been no breakthrough.

    Furthermore, JR Central has taken a financial hit due to the novel coronavirus, with crashing passenger numbers on the Tokaido Shinkansen -- a major pillar of its revenue. Occupancy on the bullet train line in September stood at just 38% of that in the same month the previous year. JR Central says that its consolidated sales for the April-June financial quarter stood at 128.7 billion yen, down 72.7% compared to a year before. It's profit-loss statement revealed 83.6 billion yen in red ink for the quarter, down from a 206.2 billion yen profit for the same period the previous year.

    However, JR Central has received government investment and loans relating to the maglev project to the tune of 3 trillion yen. JR Central President Shin Kaneko commented that financial resources for the maglev project have been secured separately, and that the current situation will not affect operations.

    (Japanese original by Keisuke Umeda, Kofu Bureau, and Yoshitaka Yamamoto, City News Department)

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